Arsenal have enjoyed a near-perfect start to the season so far and currently sit top of the pile as the Premier League approaches the festive season.
However, last week’s crushing 6-3 defeat at Manchester City gave the doubters the first signs of the wheels falling off of Arsenal’s title tilt, and the Gunners could drop from top to fourth this weekend if results go against them.
One of the teams that could overtake them are their opponents on Monday, Chelsea, adding a further subplot to what is already an engaging fixture. Here are three of the key areas that could decide Monday’s London derby.
Mesut Ozil v Chelsea’s Midfield
If they are to leapfrog their London rivals, then Chelsea will have to keep Mesut Ozil quiet. The German has been the catalyst behind Arsenal’s first meaningful title challenge in years and has been the Premier League’s most creative player since his deadline-day move from Real Madrid.
Ozil tops the league’s assist table with seven goals laid on for his teammates and has created an impressive 36 chances so far this season. Of the total chances that Arsenal have created this season, Ozil has provided 21 percent of them.
Whilst it is not necessarily true that stopping Ozil stops Arsenal, the German provides a sizeable chunk of Arsenal’s creative play and will be the key man for Chelsea to keep a close eye on.
The club’s record signing, Ozil is under pressure to perform. Murmurings have started about his ability to produce in the big games, with Michael Owen the latest to question the league’s most productive player. If he can produce a big performance on Monday, then Ozil can go some way to answering his critics and ensuring that his team stays top of the pile heading into Christmas.
Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel are likely to be the men tasked with stopping Ozil. The map above shows the areas on the pitch from which Ozil has created chances this season, with central areas proving to be by far his most fruitful.
When combined with the fact that Chelsea have been leaking goals recently, the battle between Ozil and Chelsea’s deep-lying midfield pair could be crucial.
With their recent defensive record in mind, Jose Mourinho may be tempted to recall John-Obi Mikel to the Blues' starting line-up. The midfielder has only started five league matches this season but could come in at the Emirates in order to provide greater defensive cover.
Of the three players competing for the two holding midfield berths on Monday—Mikel, Lampard and Ramires—Mikel has the highest tackle success rate and is the most naturally defensive. This is evident in the composition of his defensive actions, of which 40 percent have been interceptions.
Whilst Lampard and Ramires both perform the role well, Mikel’s ability to see what is happening through the eyes of a defensive midfielder rather than as a converted attacking midfielder could help prevent Ozil leaving the Chelsea midfield chasing shadows.
Mathieu Flamini v Juan Mata
However, Chelsea aren’t the only side to have a soft underbelly at the base of their midfield. Arsenal are likely to line up with either Mikel Arteta or Mathieu Flamini alongside Aaron Ramsey on Monday in another key battle that could decide the game.
Ramsey’s exceptional form is well-documented, but Arteta has been poor in recent weeks and is likely to find himself on the bench.
This means that Flamini and Ramsey are likely to be chosen to shackle Chelsea’s plethora of attacking midfielders. Whilst picking the two midfielders to play alongside Eden Hazard in Mourinho’s 4-2-3-1 is difficult, Juan Mata scored at the Emirates earlier in the season—in the Capital One Cup—and looks likely to start in the No. 10 role.
Despite being on the fringes of Mourinho’s plans this season, Mata has created 25 chances over the course of the season and has successfully gone past his man on 56 percent of the occasions that he has attempted a take-on.
The role of Flamini in dealing with Mata is another key battle upon which the match could hinge. Whilst Ramsey is diligent in his defensive duties, you get the feeling that he’d rather be attacking, leaving Flamini as the key defensive cog.
Arsene Wenger regretted his side’s openness in midfield against Manchester City last week after Flamini had been withdrawn, and it will be up to Flamini to prevent the Gunners from being overrun in midfield areas for the second week in succession.
Theo Walcott v Cesar Azpilicueta
One of the few Arsenal players to emerge from last weekend’s defeat to Manchester City with any credit, Theo Walcott will be looking to keep up his goalscoring form.
Whilst the Englishman has a tendency to drift in and out of games, he provides Arsenal with a pacey goal threat. Last weekend’s game at City was typical of Walcott. Whilst he scored twice from five shots on goal, he only completed 10 passes.
However, when he does come alive, he does it with a direct pace that Arsenal lack without him. Arsenal's top scorer with 14 Premier League goals last season, Walcott also created 38 chances. Whilst this is decent if unspectacular, a high proportion of these chances resulted in goals.
Twenty-six percent of the chances Walcott created last season were converted, showing his improving ability to put the ball on a plate for his teammates.
In a tight game, he is capable of providing a burst of energy from nowhere that could spark Arsenal into life, whilst his very presence in the team causes defences to panic and removes the option for them to defend high up the pitch, making Walcott another of Arsenal’s key men.
Chelsea left-back Cesar Azpilicueta will be the man to mark Walcott. The Spaniard has won 22 tackles, a success rate of 61 percent, since displacing Ashley Cole in the left-back berth and averages six defensive actions per game.